Members of the 2nd Australian Division marching back to their billets after a spell of duty in the front line trenches.
The first Australian battalions moved into the front line of the Western Front on 7 April 1916. Credit: Australian War Memorial
During mid March the 1st Anzac Corps, composed of the Australian 1st and 2nd Divisions -plus the New Zealand Division – departed from Egypt and arrived at Marseilles, France on 19 March. On 1 April Australian advance parties moved on to the Western Front and occupied front line trenches for the first time on 7 April.
After the horrors of the Anzac Peninsula some Australians, both on the front line and at home were mildly optimistic and thought that the Western Front could be an easier campaign. And indeed there were some reasons for this optimism. The battle hardened ANZAC troops had been joined by large numbers of fresh reinforcements from Australia and the original two divisions were expanded to four.
However the general and more realistic consensus was that the Western Front would result in further heavy casualties, every bit as terrible as the experience at Anzac Cove.
However it was a comparatively good time for the Australians to enter this battle zone – the bulk of the German attention on the Western Front was focussed on the massive Battle of Verdun that was wreaking a grim harvest of French and German lives.
The 1st, 2nd 4th and 5th Australian Divisions were commanded by General William Birdwood, and they were initially sent to a quiet sector near the Belgian border for a period of familiarisation, after which they occupied front line trenches around Armentieres replacing the British II Corps. This area too was one of the less active zones of the Western Front at the time but even here there were short periods of heavy action and the introduction of the Anzacs to the Western Front was a harsh one.
The transfer of Australian forces to the area was not officially announced at first but rumours abounded. A contemporary newspaper account of April 20 noted “late rumours have been circulated to the effect that Australian soldiers are fighting on the Western Front. From letters received locally we learn that some at least of our troops are in France, and are likely to be soon in action. Our troops will soon have the opportunity they have been hungering for, of crossing swords with the detested Hun”.